Saturday, October 25, 2014

No Man is an Island...unless he's a quarterback seeking recognition

When it comes to how an athlete's legacy is judged, the degree to which championship wins are factored in varies widely by sport. In baseball, being a no-ring stat god alone, e.g., Ted Williams, is usually more than enough to be considered an all time great. Not so in basketball or football; especially if you're a quarterback. When it comes to quarterbacks, Shannon Sharpe will tell you: "You don't even get to get in this discussion if you don't have a championship."

Dan Marino, who once held nearly ever passing record, "never won a Super Bowl," and this is mentioned frequently as a serious mark against him. Meanwhile Joe Namath, a pretty mediocre quarterback, is a legend only thanks to a Super Bowl victory.

In football, this YOU AREN'T GREAT WITHOUT A RING criterion is especially goofy. No sport, not even baseball, has as much specialization as football. In basketball, the players play both defense and offense. Same with baseball; you field and hit (unless you're a DH/AL pitcher). In football however, you are literally one or the other. Eleven entirely different men get on the field when it is time to play defense. Dan Marino was never responsible for a single defensive play; in other words, he didn't participate in 50% of the game, but somehow he will never live down not winning a Super Bowl while playing on just one side of the ball. The very fact that Marino could break that many records and still not win a Super Bowl shows how impossible it is to do it alone. Given how many moving parts there are in every single football play - defense or offense - effectively pinning it all on one player seems a bit absurd.

Maybe in the days when football players played on both sides of the ball this criticism was more valid. But pretty much no one has done that since 1962. It might be time to move on.

This whole line of thinking can be smashed quite easily: tomorrow you're starting your own football franchise with your own dough on the line. Who you do want at quarterback: Dan Marino, or Jim Plunkett? Don't give yourself a hernia trying to remember who Jim Plunkett even was...

As for why basketball greats like Karl Malone and Charles Barkley get more abuse for not winning the big one than Ted Williams or Ken Griffey Jr., well, I think part of it is simply that basketball is now a much more beloved/discussed sport than baseball, mainly because of a guy named Jordan. And when people think Jordan, they think championships; six, in fact. His Airness remade the game, and others' judgments of the game, in his image.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Income gaps mean class warfare. Brain gaps mean classroom warfare

Much is made of Einstein's poor academic record. The future scientific giant was a hopeless student, and his even more hopeless teachers failed to recognize his brilliance! This well-worn narrative is a tad exaggerated; when taking his college entrance exam Einstein knocked it out of the park in math and physics. Nevertheless, the Einstein example of classroom failure and subsequent success has been used to offer hope to academic laggards since at least the days of my youth.

It's a nice yarn, but on further analysis, it probably isn't the best story to share with kids who struggle academically. Underlining that the man with the greatest mind since Isaac Newton eventually managed to bring attention to his brilliance doesn't give the struggling student with the middle-of-the-road brain much to hope for: "So even though the strain of pre-algebra has me popping Ritalin like Tic-Tacs, all I have to do to overcome this is prove I understand space and time better than any mortal before me? Uh, what kind of GPA do you need to be accepted into the Crips?"

The subtext to the Einstein example is that grades aren't everything, and by extension, upsetting measurements like SAT aren't everything. The Einstein tale is part of the popular modern "wisdom" that we're all an equally skilled ball of clay waiting to be molded into excellence. The SAT just measures your test-taking ability, not innate cognitive skill, right? Good students are just kids who work harder thanks to the village's loving embrace. Careful teacher: your worst student might be contemplating a sequel to relativity!

Einstein aside, many of the brilliant, accomplished, visionary folks DID have their brilliance recognized by conventional means. It WAS able to be measured in some capacity.

Francis Crick attended Cambridge. Watson attended University of Chicago.

Stephen Hawking studied at Oxford and Cambridge.

Alan Turing...Cambridge.

William Shockley attended MIT and Caltech.

Tesla completed his four years in three years.

Marvin Minsky went to Harvard and Princeton.

Brin and Page met at Stanford.

Bill Gates did drop out of college...but it was Harvard. And he got a perfect score on the math part of the SAT.

Salk attended a high school for the gifted.

Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard. In prep school he won academic prizes.

Jobs dropped out of Reed College; a virtual Rhodes Scholar factory. Wozniak failed to finish at Berkeley...

Because most people's measurements aren't stellar, they reflexively proclaim that measurements either don't matter or don't measure everything. Well no shit they don't measure everything. But if you look at a list of great achievers, you'll see that A LOT of them had at least some of their talent measured and recognized before their ultimate breakthrough. Einstein was very much the exception. John Q. Average is going to need a hell of a lot of intangibles to outrun Zuckerberg's tangibles (not to mention Zuckerberg's intangibles). And P.S.: Mark Zuckerberg also knows how to work hard.

An Einstein example in athletics - where every nook and cranny is measured to analyze a player's chances at success - is Jerry Rice. You routinely hear that Rice ran a poor (for a receiver) 4,71 time in the 40-yard dash. Great, but here are the times of some other dominant receivers: Randy Moss: 4:25, Terrell Owens: 4:45, Calvin Johnson: 4:35, Steve Smith: 4.39, Marvin Harrison: 4:38. Jerry Rice's "slow" time is a rarity. Most dominant receivers show much more speed in the NFL Combine and Rice's incredible success doesn't alter that. Pointing to the "slow" receiver to give hope to a kid who should probably consider another position (or sport) isn't doing the kid any favors.

This is just as true in school. You can tell a kid to dream without telling him to hallucinate. If he has no grip on calculus, make his dream to be an electrician; better yet, an electrician in business for himself. Incidentally, that will earn him a better living than many of the liberal arts hallucinaters outscoring him in class.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Fashionable Superstitions: Food Allergies

Have you noticed all the new food "allergies" sprouting up; nuts, gluten, wheat. "Allergy" warnings on food packaging are becoming ever more verbose. I just ate some bread that came with a warning that it had spent time in the same hemisphere as tree nuts.

I'm going to be sensitivity-allergic and submit that maybe all these new food allergies shouldn't be classified as allergies. When you eat something, your body does indeed react. Red meat is generally harder to digest than chicken. Some folks are more bloated after yogurt than others. These are reactions that can be unpleasant. But of those two, only dairy is something people claim a distinct allergy to*. You don't hear much about red meat allergies. Given how the slightest unpleasant reaction is now called an allergy, perhaps that should change. Perhaps we should be warning people about foods whose name includes the letter C, O, or W.

If the slightest unpleasant reaction (sometimes imagined) is now termed an allergy, what isn't an allergy?

Spicy food can cause heartburn. Should that now be called an allergy?

Plenty of folks now claim to have celiac disease, obviously unaware of how serious actual celiac can be. Some people are more sensitive to sugar than others; imagine if everyone who couldn't handle intense desserts went around advertising their "diabetes."

What about alcohol? Alcohol is the one ingestible where people gladly look past all the side effects (and unlike many of the foods they do avoid, alcohol has little nutritional value). After consuming booze, even in moderation, people experience headaches, stomach aches, sensitivity to light, etc. Yet no one talks about having a booze allergy. They will however say they can't have beer because of the gluten...

The way popular usage has warped the word allergy, having a hangover should now be classified as a serious allergic reaction. Your body is telling you alcohol doesn't sit well with you. The side effects are much easier to measure than the supposed impacts of many of the foods people are now swearing off.

Everyone has different sensitivities, but as with all things, magnitude matters. Someone who sneezes slightly after spending a day in a dog kennel shouldn't be classed with the same word as someone who can't breath after a few minutes around a poodle. Unfortunately with food, that perspective has fled the stage. Given how perennially fat Americans seem to be, perhaps they are allergic to all that
"health food" they claim to be consuming. Or maybe the allergy labels are what's making us pudgy. There is as much science to that claim as there is to a lot of today's homespun "allergy" wisdom.



*Obviously, I'm not talking about genuine, harsh sensitivity to lactose, etc. Notice that those with that kind of hypersensitivity don't suddenly "discover" it after skimming an allergy article in Cosmo while eating an airport pizza.